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Pfizer expects Omicron vaccine to be ready in March

New York - Pfizer expects a Covid-19 vaccine targeting the Omicron variant to be ready in March, the company's head said Monday. Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla told CNBC that Pfizer is already manufacturing doses due to keen interest from governments, as authorities contend with huge Covid-19 infection counts, including large numbers of "breakthrough" Omicron cases in vaccinated populations.


"This vaccine will be ready in March," Bourla told the network. "I don't know if we will need it. I don't know if and how it will be used." Bourla said the existing regime of two vaccine shots and a booster has provided "reasonable" protection against serious health effects from Omicron. But a vaccine focused directly on the Omicron variant would also guard against breakthrough infections of a strain that has proven highly contagious, but has also resulted in many mild or asymptomatic cases. In a separate interview with CNBC Monday, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said the company is developing a booster that could address Omicron and other emerging strains in fall 2022.


"We are discussing with public health leaders around the world to decide what we think is the best strategy for a potential booster for the fall of 2022," Bancel told the network. "We need to be careful to try to stay ahead of a virus and not behind the virus."


AstraZeneca said on Thursday that preliminary data from a trial showed that its COVID-19 shot, Vaxzevria, generated an increase in antibodies against the Omicron and other variants when given as a third booster dose.


The increased response, also against the Delta variant, was seen in a blood analysis of people who were previously vaccinated with either Vaxzevria or an mRNA vaccine, the drugmaker said, adding that it would submit this data to regulators worldwide given the urgent need for boosters.


AstraZeneca has developed the vaccine with researchers from the University of Oxford, and lab studies conducted by the university last month already found a three-dose course of Vaxzevria boosted antibody levels in the blood against the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.


The brief statement on Thursday, which did not include specific data, was the first by AstraZeneca on the protective potential of Vaxzevria as a booster shot following a two-shot-course of either an mRNA based vaccine or Vaxzevria. Vaccines base on mRNA technology are made by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna.


The company said the findings "add to the growing body of evidence supporting Vaxzevria as a third dose booster irrespective of the primary vaccination schedules tested". The data on Vaxzevria's potential as a booster came from a comparative analysis in a trial testing a redesigned vaccine that uses the vector technology behind Vaxzevria but targets the now-superseded Beta variant. AstraZeneca is trying to show the Beta-specific vaccine has potential also against other variants and more trial data is expected during the first half of the year.


Separately, Oxford University and AstraZeneca last month started work on a vaccine specifically targeting Omicron though Astra - as well as other vaccine makers in similar development projects - have said it was not yet clear whether such an upgrade was needed. A major British trial in December found that AstraZeneca's shot increased antibodies when given as a booster after initial vaccination with its own shot or Pfizer's, but that was before the explosive spread of the Omicron variant.


However, the study at the time concluded that mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna gave the biggest boost to antibodies when given as a third dose. AstraZeneca and its contract manufacturing partners have supplied over 2.5 billion doses globally of its vaccine, even though it is not approved in the United States, while BioNTech-Pfizer has shipped about 2.6 billion doses.


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